Thursday, 15 August 2013

Smoking Mirror


I produced a POD version of
Smoking Mirror some time ago, so it really is old and probably not very interesting news. Nevertheless, it's just popped up as a topic of minor curiosity on the Outpost Gallifrey forum, presumably someone working their way backwards from my more recent, arguably more legitimate written efforts; and I realised I'd never got around to reposting this 2011 review from Andrew Hickey's wonderful Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, so here it is:

Obligatory disclaimer-cum-explanation as to why I've bought this book. I've vaguely known Lawrence Burton as one of the more intelligent posters on the Doctor Who forum Outpost Gallifrey and on the Faction Paradox forum for a year or two. We've recently become Facebook friends, and he wrote a very flattering review of my most recent book. So I may be biased here.

On the other hand, I don't know him well enough that I think I'm biased - and if you read through that thread (Lawrence reviewing several hundred science fiction books) it's obvious both that he can actually write, and also that he shares a number of my tastes - of the books we've both read, I'd say I agree with at least 80% of his reviews, and especially the stuff he's most glowing about (Philip K. Dick, Lawrence Miles, David Louis Edelman) and his tastes in individual works by writers (preferring The End Of Eternity and The Gods Themselves to Asimov's Robot stuff).

So when I saw he'd self-published a couple of books himself, I bought this one without even reading the description.

It turns out to be an unofficial Doctor Who novel. I'd hesitate to call it fanfic, partly because it was intended for BBC Books (and quite why it was rejected I can't understand) and partly because fanfic tends to suggest something of poor quality, and this is anything but. It's a Doctor Who novel that happens not to have been licensed by the BBC, that's all. (Lawrence is selling the book at cost price and not making a penny from it, I hasten to add).

Given that it's self-published, there are surprisingly few criticisms I can make of it. The review thread linked above is called Crappy 70s Paperbacks with Airbrushed Spaceships on the Cover, and the cover design is a perfect imitation of those, the typography on the back being spookily reminiscent of some of them (the closest comparison I can find is the Granada paperback copies of The End Of Eternity and The Zap Gun, but I know I've seen something even closer). However, the typography in the book itself is less wonderful, being in Times New Roman (or a facsimile thereof) and eight- or ten-point type. Having a legally-blind wife, I know from experience that ideally one should print things in at least twelve-point, and wherever possible use a sans-serif font, for readability.

Other than that, the only really jarring thing about the book is a moment of lampshade hanging, when the Doctor is on a collect-the-plot-tokens quest and thinks about how he hates this kind of thing when it happens in books. It's not done quite well enough to overcome the problems.

One other problem I have - and one that's my problem rather than the book's - is that the book is set in pre-Columbian Mexico, and so the characters' names are all phonetically unlike anything I'm accustomed to. This gave me some difficulty in keeping track of the characters, but that can hardly be helped, given the subject.

The plot is a pretty good one - why has the universe shrunk, so that it now consists of only a small area of Central America and a few centuries? Why are the Gods walking among the humans? - but the plot is less important than the writing. Lawrence obviously has a huge love for the Mexica culture and mythology, and this comes across in every word. Before I read this, all I knew of the Mexica culture was that some of their sculptures in the British Museum look like they'd been made by Jack Kirby, if Kirby had had an obsession with skulls (which is a good thing). But Lawrence manages both to make this seem like a sympathetic culture (putting even the human sacrifice into a context where it seems entirely reasonable) and to bring out the utter strangeness of the culture's myths.

A lot of individual scenes will stay with me for a long time - the Doctor getting an inkling that problems are starting when Carl Sagan starts talking about how the Earth is a few thousand years old, the god at the centre of the TARDIS, the journey through Mictlan - this is a book as much about the journey as the destination, and Lawrence isn't afraid of devoting time to his interests, whether that be retelling old myths or explaining Mexica social structure or making asides about old sitcoms.

In fact, after the obvious in-joke that the Third Doctor used to watch Dad's Army (which starred Bill Pertwee) I started wondering about the other references - what does the confirmation of a Doctor-Who-universe Wilfred Brambell and Tony Hancock mean for the careers of the 'Whoniverse' Ron Grainer and Terry Nation? - but that's just the 60s-TV fan in me coming out.

And there's a very sitcom feel about parts of this book, but in a good way. It's a funny book, but the humour all flows from the situations, whether it be the Doctor's other console rooms (I want to see the McConsole Room™ now) or the TARDIS translation circuit malfunction that renders speech more… idiomatically than before. The one funny bit that doesn't quite fit in is the bit with three priests (trying not to spoil anything here). But that is so funny - and so incongruous - that it works, even though it could easily have fallen into the too-common trap of mistaking a reference for an actual joke.

The characterisation is spot-on as well. Lawrence catches Peri's voice perfectly, and his Sixth Doctor is definitely Colin Baker (although the character here is closer to the TV series than to the more nuanced portrayal in the audio stories - understandably, as this was written in 2002, when the audios hadn't been going that long). At times the Doctor seems almost too verbose, but then this is a Doctor whose defining writers were Pip & Jane Baker, and the fact that nobody else talks like that shows it as a stylistic choice rather than a tin ear.

It's a first novel, with all that that entails, and Lawrence's influences are clear (and he thanks Philip Purser-Hallard and Simon Bucher-Jones in the acknowledgements, if it hadn't been obvious) - I'm sure the use of Mictlan here is at least in part a reference to its use in the Faction Paradox books - but while this doesn't rise to the level of the very best Doctor Who books, it's funny, clever, well-written and written by someone with an obvious love for his subjects - both Doctor Who and pre-Columbian Mexica culture - and is certainly better than a good 90% of the Doctor Who books I've read.

Now if only Air France hadn’t lost my bag with my DVD of The Aztecs in, I could do a compare / contrast here. Oh well…

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to a non-fan of Doctor Who, but it's an excellent self-contained story which requires a minimum of continuity knowledge, so if you're even a casual fan - especially if you're a fan of the Sixth Doctor, who's otherwise even worse-served in print than on TV - this is well worth a read. I'll definitely be buying Lawrence's book of short stories.

So there you go - that all seems fair. It's available here if anyone's tempted.

Finally, I should probably stress for the benefit of the three of you to whom this might make any sense, although Smoking Mirror shares a setting with Against Nature, it's a distant ancestor rather than a direct relative, and certainly isn't the first draft of the more recent title.

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